Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Northern Ireland vs American College Education System

Mary-Claire O'Mullan
Queen's University Belfast
Exchange student 15-16 @ Maryville College
Northern Ireland

For those of you I have not met, my name is Mary-Claire and I am an international student from Northern Ireland. Every year fifty-sixty students from Northern Ireland are given the opportunity to study business and management in the U.S as part of a programme called “Study USA”. “Study USA” began in 1994 and is funded by the British Council. Its aims to develop the academic and applied skills of ambitious and talented students in business-orientated subjects, create opportunities for young people to realise their ambitions in international business and assists in community building in Northern Ireland by widening horizons of young people in a new cultural setting. Having completed two years of an Accounting degree at Queens University, Belfast, I successfully applied and was placed at Maryville College.

I arrived in August, moved into my dorm, completed international orientation and became accustomed to “Southern” living. Over the last two semesters I have taken eight business classes, including Organizational Behavior, International Business and Human Resource management, experiencing first hand major differences in the Northern Ireland and American education systems. While both certainly provide an excellent environment for learning, the structure of the college, approach to work and student life are far from home.

Length of Time

One of the most notable differences between the college education system in Northern Ireland and the U.S is the amount of time it takes to finish your degree. In general, degree programs in Northern Ireland are designed to last three years while in the U.S it usually takes one year longer, although this can vary depending upon the course or major taken and whether you receive a Master’s degree prior to a PhD. In both systems, you can go directly to a PhD program after your undergraduate program, but in Northern Ireland it is more common to complete a Master’s degree before moving on to a PhD. A Master’s program in Northern Ireland usually takes one year and a PhD three, while in the U.S it usually takes two years for a Master’s and five-seven for a PhD.  Courses of study are shorter in Northern Ireland because the course programs are generally much more focused than in the U.S.

Academic Term

While most universities in the U.S begin their terms in mid to late August, taking a rather lengthy break beginning in mid-December and starting the second semester in early to mid-January, Northern Ireland universities operate on a completely different academic calendar. Term begins in late-September or early-October with the second semester starting in early-February and ending in early-June. All Northern Irish universities have two, twelve week semesters, excluding two-three weeks at Easter. Christmas holidays come after the first term but with the addition of January exams. There are no classes in January but students take exams from the second-last week and then begin the second semester in February. Similarly, the second semester ends early-May with the summer exam period lasting from late-May to early-June. These differences make for a slightly shorter academic year in the U.S than in Northern Ireland.


In the last year of Secondary school, (the equivalent to U.S High School), Northern Irish students will apply to study a specific degree programme at university. This degree will consist of compulsory classes, solely relating to the degree subject. While some courses may offer optional classes the structure on the course is pretty set in stone. As previously mentioned, I am studying Accounting and so have only ever taken Accounting or similar classes at university. This is a huge contrast to the liberal arts philosophy here at Maryville College. Based on the development of well-rounded knowledge, students are expected to take a wide range of varying subject classes. This variation and freedom of choice with regards elective classes is something I really enjoyed and feel it breaks up the monotony of only taking classes related to your major.

Participation and Attendance

Emphasis on student participation and group work are other major differences between my home university and Maryville College. During the 2014/15 academic year 23,855 students were enrolled at Queens University, Belfast with 79% being undergraduates. As a result classes can consist of hundreds of students making monitoring attendance and participation practically impossible. In contrast, professors in smaller U.S colleges usually dedicate a portion of students’ final mark to attendance and participation. They expect students to display their knowledge actively and engage in their lectures, as participating in classroom discussions is seen as demonstration that you grasp the course material. With regards group work, I have had more group work in my last semester at Maryville College than in my entire time at Queens. While this is partly due to the contrast in class sizes, this team approach to work has been helpful both in improving my team work and communication skills and in getting to know more people. Additionally, there are no 8am classes. The earliest class is 9am and as attendance is not compulsory they are not the most populated classes of the day.

Homework and Grades

In addition to participation, another key difference in the U.S college classroom is the amount and frequency of work and how it is graded. In Northern Ireland the final grade of a class commonly consists of homework (5-10%), coursework/midterm exam (15-25%), (usually takes place around week 6 of term) and a final exam (85-75%). Something U.S students may also find interesting is that grades are based on the British undergraduate degree classification system. Calculated by the weighted average of all classes taken, the degree classifications are: First-class honours (≥70%), Second-class honours, upper division (≥60%) and Second-class honours, lower division (≥50%), Third-class honours (≥40%) and an Ordinary degree (35-39.5%). Contrastingly, I have learnt that U.S Professors begin grading within the first few weeks of class and the final mark compromises numerous quizzes, tests, assignments, presentations, class participation and group work. Everything contributes to the final class grade and to the overall Grade Point Average (GPA) of the student. Most students will aim for at least a 3.0 GPA or a B, the equivalent of 83-86%. This is something Northern Irish Students will definitely find daunting and did require some time to get my head around. However, I should mention that while U.S exams are more frequent, Northern Irish exams are harder.


The cost of education in both countries is far from cheap, but the cost of education in the U.S is generally, substantially higher. Universities in Northern Ireland can charge up to £3,925 for yearly tuition fees (approximately $6400) to students coming from Northern Ireland but fees for international students can be significantly higher. The government sets the limits for tuition fees, and each individual school sets its own fee up to that limit. By contrast, the government has very little control over what universities charge in the United States. The U.S differentiates between in-state tuition fees and out-of-state tuition fees, as well as between private and public universities. These distinctions determine the tuition fee. The average tuition fee for public two-year institutions is around $3000 per year, while the average fee for private four-year institutions is around $29,000 per year and some private four-year institutions can cost up to $50,000 per year.


Both Northern Ireland and the U.S provide students with residence halls in which to live. However, at Queens, residence halls are only open to first year students and are in high demand due to the size of the university. Living in residence halls is not compulsory and many students will live in houses or apartments close to the university. Queens is also an open campus, meaning university buildings are scattered throughout South Belfast an area simply known as the “student area” of the city. If you do live in residence halls you have your own bedroom and usually your own bathroom facilities too. Having to share a bedroom with a complete stranger was definitely high on my list of worries when coming to study in the U.S having always had my own space. Northern Irish residence halls are also all self-catered, while here in the U.S a range of full dining options are commonly provided for students.

Although I did have to adapt to major changes, my experience with facilities, students and staff has been nothing but positive. Entering through the gates of Maryville College, almost nine months ago, I could never have imagined the sadness I feel as my time here comes to an end. Nonetheless, I am leaving not only having developed my business knowledge and skills but having learned lessons and made connections and friendships that will last a life time. I am extremely proud to become a Maryville College Alum and thank everyone, especially Study USA, the British Council and Maryville College Centre for International Education for an amazing year. Go Scots!

Mary-Claire O’Mullan